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A Novel

Written by Dan BardenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Dan Barden

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On Sale: March 06, 2012
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-679-64435-4
Published by : The Dial Press Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Southern California home builder extraordinaire Randy Chalmers has to admit he’d be dead or in prison were it not for his best friend, lawyer, and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Terry Elias. A former police officer, Randy narrowly escaped being an evening news highlight during years ravaged by anger and alcohol. Thanks to Terry’s coaching and an endless stream of caffeine-fueled AA meetings, Randy’s been off the booze for eight years, has a successful new career, and is thriving in a healthy relationship with his vegan yoga-instructor girlfriend. All is well . . . until Terry, himself supposedly sober for fifteen years, is found dead of a heroin overdose.
 
How could Terry, who had dragged so many others from the edge, jump off himself? Convinced that something (or someone) must have pushed him, Randy is soon off on a dry-drunk quest for answers—and possibly revenge. He discovers a trail of dirty secrets that lead to missing persons, shady real estate deals, hydroponic pot farms, and Internet pornography. When his suspicions ultimately connect Terry’s death to the activities of a recently appointed Superior Court judge—who just happens to be dating Randy’s ex-wife—Randy has to ask himself: Is he really onto something or just suffering from grief and paranoia? Will his increasingly frenzied behavior ruin his current relationship and his chances of regaining custody of his daughter? Will he destroy the life that he has worked so hard to achieve? Will he reach for a drink?
 
The Next Right Thing is a hilarious and harrowing combination of thriller and recovery tale, equal parts hard-earned wisdom and old-fashioned suspense.

Excerpt

OFFICIALLY,  I  STARTED   DESTROYING   MY  LIFE  that Wednesday morning. But it had been on my mind for a while.
As I drove up  Pacific  Coast Highway past the Laguna Art Museum, I suddenly longed for still-sort-of-disreputable Santa Ana, where there would have been a neighborhood nearby that would better reflect  my  mood. There’s  nothing worse  than a beautiful town when you’ve got an ugly head. From every corner of  always-blooming Laguna Beach, bougainvillea  announced that unhappiness was not an option here.
It had been almost three weeks since Terry died, and I hadn’t done a damn thing but drink espresso and avoid the people who loved me.
It reminded me  of when I first got sober. I didn’t  want to drink, but  I held the idea  of drinking close,  like a suicide bomb inside my heart. Just bend my elbow and a world of possibilities would open up.  Bad possibilities, but  possibilities nevertheless. I’d never see my  daughter again, but  I’d make sure  that a few people paid for their sins.
I could hear Terry’s voice: Clamoring for justice again? Is that it, Randy?
I was waiting for the light beside the Cottage to change, staring into a pack  of well-dressed skateboarders pointed toward Heisler Park, when my cell phone rang. It was Wade’s number, so I didn’t answer. Sometimes you’re too lonely to talk to your friends.
Instead, I drove my F-350 up to Jean  Claude’s café in North Laguna. Like every  other morning these three weeks,  I would park  my  ass in  a molded plastic chair beside a molded plastic table and try to clear my mind with double espressos.
That morning the sidewalk and the shrubs were  still  dewy. Across  the parking lot,  surfers   were  jaywalking across   Coast Highway, shrugging into wet suits,  blowing their noses into the street. Above the beach access, a gray shelf of fog announced the Pacific Ocean.
At a table nearby, a couple of rich people waved at me tenta- tively. I  vaguely remembered being introduced to them  by someone who thought I might design their home. She was too old to be his daughter and too pretty to be his first wife. I’d prob- ably  been dodging their calls,  but  they wouldn’t approach me here. I had perfected my sullenness. It was another way that my old life clung to me: sometimes I scared people.
For three weeks,  I’d been pretending I was just a home de- signer and not that earlier, angrier version of myself. It wasn’t working. Every  day  it got harder to pretend I was  anyone but myself.
 

Jean Claude set down another double espresso on the flimsy table. He was hardworking Eurotrash—a contradiction I liked. Also, the only guy in Southern California who didn’t look  like he’d grown his goatee yesterday.
“Ça va?” he asked.
“Ça fucking va. How about you? Who are you humping these days?”
“An important man, works for Obama. He’s too good for me, though. I want somebody bad,  like you.”
One  good thing had come out  of the past three weeks: I’d fi- nally found a way  to describe the sound of my  diseased con- science. It was a Styrofoam ice chest wedged behind the seat of an  old  pickup. The  rougher the road, the louder it  squeaked, until the noise became unbearable.
My cell phone rang again as Jean  Claude was clearing away my  second double espresso. This  time I answered: “What the fuck do you want, Wade?”
“It’s not Wade. It’s Tom. Wade got into a fight. He wanted me to call you.”
“Tell him that I’m not coming.” I hung up.
They couldn’t be anywhere but  the Coastal Club, one  of the places  I was avoiding, a place  that I’d been avoiding even before Terry died. I poured my espresso into a sip cup  and sped  out  of the parking lot.  Something that had stuck with me  from that lost decade of  being a cop:  running out  of  coffee  shops and driving away too fast.

. . .


A simple white building in a glade of oak and eucalyptus just off
Laguna Canyon Road,  the Coastal Club  was  nicer than most A.A. clubs  because a rich gallery owner had endowed it thirty years ago. Then it took them almost half that thirty years to de- cide  on  a design. It was just down the road from the old  Bhag- wan   Ranjeesh  place—now a  nursery school—and you  could have mistaken it for a deal like that. The architectural equivalent of a freshly laundered linen nightgown. They’d done a good job.
I hated going there, but it was the place where my life began. Once I would have slept there if they had let me. I first met Terry in the gravel parking lot where I was now skidding my truck into a swirl of dust.
Wade stood at the front door beside Tom  and several other fools  from the seven A.M. meeting. It seemed like everyone but Wade wanted to tell  me  what had happened. But they were  a little scared to tell  me,  too. Since  Terry’s death, I’d become an authorized repository for community grief. One  reason I hadn’t attended a single meeting since the funeral was that I was sick of people looking at me as though I might break  down or explode. Wade’s pal Tom, an overweight photojournalist who’d taken the highway patrol on  a chase through two  counties last summer, gave  me  a jaunty and ridiculous salute. He and a guy  I didn’t know at all, with dark glasses and a bomber jacket, stood behind Wade like Secret Service agents: arms at their sides but ready.
When I rolled up beside the curb, Wade said, “Dude.” “In the truck,” I answered.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Tom said. “Troy Padilla came out  of no- where.”
“Out of nowhere,” the other guy underlined. “In the truck, please,” I said to Wade.
“His  dad’s  a mafioso or  something,” Tom  explained. “He knows how to do that shit.”
 

“In the fucking truck.”
When we  got back  to my  house above Bluebird Canyon, MP—only her  father calls  her  Mary  Pat—was back  from yoga training and drilling up something in the blender that I might drink if I were  dying of cancer. She  gave  Wade a hug. They’d gone to Catholic high school together in  Ranch Santa Marga- rita. Wade had grown up  surfing and perfecting his  substance abuse and brushing his blond hair out of his eyes. MP had grown up riding horses, wishing she weren’t flat-chested, and steering clear of boys like Wade.
“He won’t talk to me,” Wade said. “All the way over here, he wouldn’t speak.”
“You  guys  are  going to have to work  this out,” MP  said. “While I’m somewhere else.”
“He thinks I’m lying  to him. This dude came out  of nowhere to punch me, and he thinks I’m lying.”
I sat down on the Indian daybed that MP had found for me at a swap  meet. Not as comfortable as my Eames  chair, but  it pro- vided me a great  view of my home. I’d taken a midcentury hill- side  ranch-style and redone the interior as  contemporary cottage. Eclectic  furniture like this daybed contrasted with the white ceilings, white walls, and white plank flooring. I had used traditional materials and hadn’t  goobered them up  with too many  fixtures. Reclaimed oak  beams in  the ceiling were  the darkest element by far. Otherwise, it was a playground for the light from the hills.
I’ll always  be happy to see Wade—forever, for the rest of my life—but he’s the guy who finds  your kitchen first. The guy who wonders if you’ve made coffee.  The guy who pleads his case to your girlfriend. The guy who was now scanning my living room.
 

We’d been friends long enough that I could read  his  mind: Is that  a new Blu-ray player? The kind  that  records? How much  does something  like that cost? You’d think he was still a crack-addicted surf rat instead of a guy with a modest trust fund and an  after- noon job as a scuba instructor.
I’ll never not love him, though. Him and Terry. “Coffee?” Wade asked.
MP shook her  head and punched up the blender again. She was the only brunette with bangs I would ever love.
“Not until you drop the bullshit,” I said. “Bullshit?”
MP had her back to me, but I could feel her smiling.
“The  bullshit about how this guy  attacked you  for  no  rea- son.”
“His father’s in the Mafia,”  Wade said.  “He’s from New Jer- sey. He needs a reason?”
Even Wade knew better than to sit down in my Eames  chair, so he  passed it to stand in  front of the window watching the goats  across  the canyon. Wildfire control: they ate  everything on the hill until there was nothing left to burn.
“I think he’s the guy who was with Terry,”  Wade said. “That’s not why  he  hit you.  Once you’ve got Tom  and that
other bozo  defending you,  I know it’s a bigger story than that.” Wade smiled. My  friends can  get mighty full  of  shit, but
sometimes they’ll drop it if you  ask them. While Wade consid- ered how to tell me the truth, I watched Yegua, my Guatemalan laborer/assistant/better half, cross the backyard with a posthole digger.
“Well   .  .  .” Wade finally said. “I’ve been telling everyone he was the guy with Terry.”
 

“Do you know that for sure?”
“No,” Wade said. “But it makes sense.”
“How does it make sense, Wade? And if it made so much god- damn sense, why didn’t you tell me?”
Wade turned from the goats. “You were too busy  hiding out at  Jean  Claude’s. I thought I’d wait  until you  showed up  at  a meeting.”
“Fuck you,  Wade.”
Wade stared across the room at the nook where my electron- ics were stacked. I could feel that MP wasn’t smiling anymore.
“Okay,” I said after a while. “I’ll fix some coffee.”
Wade looked at me. “Rick Buford at the South Coast hospital meeting said  that this dude Troy  and Terry  had been driving around all day, checking out  Terry’s old drug  neighborhoods. A nostalgia trip. Sometime after  the funeral, Troy  told Rick how guilty he felt.”
“Feeling guilty doesn’t  mean he  was  with him when he died.”
Wade sat down on the couch. He leaned forward, his elbows on  his knees. “Rick said Troy told him that Terry fell like a tree, that he’d  never seen  anyone fall  like  that. He  saw  it  happen, Randy. Then he must have just bailed. Didn’t even call the fuck- ing paramedics.”
MP set down her protein drink and leaned against the coun- ter. For the first time in forever, I wished that she weren’t in my house.
My sponsor Terry was a big man, about six foot three, with silver  hair  and a pale  youthful face.  I’ve had moments when I thought he stood straighter than any  man I’d ever known. He’d been off booze and drugs for fifteen years  on  the night that he died. On the night he died from a heroin overdose in a shitty  motel room in Santa Ana.
My friend Terry would have fallen like a tree.
This  was what I’d been waiting for. My gift from God.  And not the loving God  people talked about at meetings but  a God, like me, who got pissed off when good men died. I’d been sitting on  my  ass for  three weeks  because I needed all  my  righteous strength and every bad impulse I’d been saving from eight years of sobriety to go kick the shit  out  of this little prick  from New Jersey.
MP walked down the hallway into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
I said, “Let’s go find this asshole.”

. . .


The  first time I really  talked with Terry  was  over  breakfast at Corky’s.  He  was  already hanging with Wade then, although Wade still  had one  more drunk left.  They  had invited me  to breakfast after the seven A.M. meeting at the Coastal Club.
Sometimes people in A.A. will say, “Let us love you until you can love yourself.” I don’t think it would have worked on me. At the time I wouldn’t  have trusted anyone—besides my  SAPD partner, Manny, and my sister—who pretended to love me.
With Terry and Wade, though, it was a totally different deal. Corky’s was a great  place  to have breakfast, and I fell right into the food. Terry and Wade talked about people in A.A. whom I didn’t yet know. Mostly I ignored them. I wouldn’t admit that I needed this thing. When they asked me questions, I answered. Terry  seemed like the kind of smugly successful attorney I had always hated. And Wade seemed like a tadpole who needed to be
 

slapped every  time he said the word “dude.” Still pretending to be one tough hombre, I let them know early and often that I was a cop.
About  halfway through my  bacon, cheddar, and avocado omelet, I could feel Terry staring at me. When I met his eyes, he said, “You know, Randy, we don’t hang out  with you because we like you.  We don’t like you.  Isn’t that right, Wade?”
Wade nodded slowly.
“We hang out with you,” Terry continued, “because it’s head cases like you who keep us sober.”
It was an important moment in my life. I stood up from the table, threw down twenty dollars, and walked out  of the restau- rant. I think I told them to fuck themselves. Wade said I did, and Terry said I just walked out.
By that night, I knew who my sponsor was going to be.

. . .


Halfway to our  destination, I realized that I hadn’t  even said goodbye to MP.
“It’s not on Temple Hills,” Wade said. “And it’s not on Arroyo
Hills.”
“I don’t care, Wade, where it’s not.”
Wade looked at me  like I was rushing some terribly impor- tant process—the composition of a symphony, maybe. His sun- glasses  were  hanging from his  neck   by  one   of  those Croakie doodads. I pulled them off and threw the doodad out the window. “You  don’t  get to wear  that anymore.” I tossed back  his
glasses. “It looks  too stupid.”
The asshole Troy Padilla lived  in a “recovery home”—words that should be  said  in  quotation  marks. People in  Alcoholics
 

Anonymous were always  thinking up new  scams, and lately the new  scam  was this: rent a big house and fill it with newcomers who couldn’t pull  together a security deposit if they owned a gold  mine. Put  two  of them in  each room, invent a bunch of bullshit rules  about curfew and house meetings, and you  can rake  in  at least twenty grand a month over  the actual rent. At best,  it was “stone soup”: the newcomer went to A.A. meetings and didn’t mind getting screwed by some old-timers. At worst, the people who “managed” the houses began to think they ac- tually knew something about recovering from alcoholism.
In Laguna, the scam  had been refined a bit,  which is often what happens to scams   when  they  reach Laguna. An  A.A. member named Colin Alvarez,  who’d made a lot of money as a mortgage broker, started a corporation  called Recovery Homes Incorporated to administer the houses. Sober just about as long as me,  Colin was the kind of guy who, unlike me,  didn’t make jokes  about A.A. He’d come back  from a meth addiction in his early twenties and, also unlike me, didn’t miss many meetings.
What did I know? Maybe the “recovery homes” were the best thing that ever happened to some of these people. Terry used to say that A.A. itself  was the biggest scam  of them all, but  it had failed  as a scam, and it had become something better.
“Wait,” Wade said. “It is Temple Hills.”
Eventually, Wade steered us to a little ranch house hanging its ass over the side of a hill.  This dwelling had absolutely noth- ing going for it but  the fact that it had landed in Laguna Beach. The  porcini-mushroom-and-sun-dried-tomato color scheme beneath the shake shingles was the only upscale element in the design. In Tustin or El Toro, it would have cost half of what it did here. I parked my truck pointing down the grade beside the house.
 

I thumped hard on  the front door, which was  suburban and hollow-core and made a nice  scary  sound. A near-teenager with a bare midriff and a pierced navel answered. In my limited experience, these recovery homes existed somewhere on a con- tinuum between a prison and a pajama party. I saw that contra- diction in the girl before me. She might have been near the bad end of Laguna Beach High, but something in her eyes was harder than that by a lot.  It reminded me that in spite of the affluence surrounding them, some of these kids  could be living on  the street before the year was out.
“Look  who’s here,” she  said.  “It’s the let’s-drink-too-much- coffee-but-not-smoke-enough-cigarettes-and-still-think-we’re- better-than-everyone-else brigade.”
I was wondering what meeting she knew us from when Wade shouted after  a dark-haired kid in his early  twenties peeking at us from the end of a long central hallway. The kid ran, and I ran after  him. Wade and Pierced Navel  followed. At the end of the hallway, in  what looked like  the kitchen, I  saw  three more twentysomethings—two boys  and another  girl—watching us but apparently staying put.
The kid slammed through a door into the garage, but the au- tomatic garage-door opener was  taking its  sweet time letting him out. I pushed the button to send the door down again and tossed him up  against an  old  Datsun pickup. Troy  Padilla fea- tured grungy black  hair, baggy  pants, and a faux  hip-hop uni- form that would have been current anywhere but  Laguna. He was about five-ten and all worked out, but  none of it was real muscle. “Fluffy” was what Terry  would have called him. I was probably old enough to be his father, but also very much not his father: my  still-hanging-in-there blond hair   and slow-to-tan skin came from an entirely different gene  pool. I was five inches taller and thirty unfluffy pounds heavier. My  nose had been broken enough times to prove that I hadn’t always  been smart about who I fought.
The  garage door finished closing. I could feel  Wade some- where behind me.
“Were you with him?” I asked.
“You’re talking about Terry now?” the kid said. “Who the fuck else would I be talking about?”
“I wasn’t  with him. Not at  the end. I was  with him early, when he was looking. We went to the racetrack and a few shop- ping centers in Santa Ana.  But he never found anything. Then he got pissed off and left me at a bar.”
I slowed down my breathing. I checked the garage for blunt instruments that numbnuts might grab  for.  There wasn’t any- thing in here but that old Datsun pickup.
“Which bar?”  I heard Wade ask behind me. He had his arms across the doorway to keep Pierced Navel out  of the garage.
“The TGIF off Orangethorpe.”
“That’s not a fucking bar,”  Wade said. “That’s—”
I looked back with steel in my eyes, but  Wade wouldn’t stop talking. “No,  I’m not going to shut up,  Randy. I’m sick of this guy.  Tell him how tough your father is, Troy.  I never heard of a mafioso with the name Padilla. You’re so full of shit.”
I stared at Wade again. This time he got the message. “Okay,” Wade said. “I’m done.”
I backed away  from Troy a little, but  I kept my  hands up  in case he  tried to bolt. “How  did  you  know my  friend Terry,  and how come I don’t know you?”
From behind us, Pierced Navel suddenly pushed Wade in the chest, but  he stood his ground. Then she got really  close to him and sniffed him repeatedly, which was, well, very weird.
Troy looked me straight in the eyes. “I loved Terry, the same as you guys.”
“I’ve never seen you before in my fucking life, Troy. So tell me why I should believe you.”
“Everyone knows you,  Randy. Just like everyone knew Terry. You guys were like A.A. royal—”
I pushed him back  against the Datsun, not enough to hurt him but enough to let him feel how much I wanted to hurt him. “And if you loved him so fucking much,” I said, “why didn’t you call somebody? Why didn’t you call one  of us?”
“I had ninety days  of sobriety. He  was  like  a god  to me.  I thought I was just going to snort a little smack. That’s different, right? I thought that was different. I was insane. If you guys don’t understand that, who the hell understands that?”
“What Troy’s not saying,” Pierced Navel  shouted from be- hind me, “is that you don’t know him because you haven’t fuck- ing been around. It’s hard to be Mr. A.A. when you  don’t go to any fucking A.A. meetings.”
“Crazy girl”—I  pointed at  her—“you shut the fuck  up.” I turned back to Troy. “Did he talk to anyone else while you were with him?”
“He called Claire.”
“Claire Monaco? Why did he call Claire  Monaco?”
“It was after  midnight,” Troy  Padilla sneered. “Why do you
think he called Claire  Monaco?” He made a move to get away.
This time I threw him against the truck hard. “What was this shit  about him falling like a tree? Isn’t that what you said? That Terry fell like a tree?”
 

“That’s the way I imagined it,” Troy said. “He was a big guy. You gonna beat  me up because I have an imagination?”
Troy’s face  started to cloud. He reminded me  of the tough guy in high school, which was to say not tough at all. I noticed, however, that I believed him.
“I figured Terry knew what he was doing.” Troy started to cry. “Didn’t Terry always  look like he knew what he was doing?”
Troy’s jaw began to shake, and Pierced Navel  went apeshit. She kneed Wade in the groin and pushed past him into the ga- rage.  She  slapped my  face—hard—but her  assault didn’t seem to have any  purpose other than to focus  my  attention. Which it did.
“Do I know you?” I said.
“You should. Because  assholes like you  have been stepping on my feet and ramming pencils up my nose since before I knew what feet and pencils were. You’ve got a big fucking truck where your soul should be, and you want to drive  it over someone, but you  can’t because it’s encased in flesh and you  would die if you tried. Fuck you,  fuck you both.”
She swung back  to slap me again, but  Wade had by then re- covered from her  knee, and he  got himself around her  pretty good. She couldn’t do much but thrash and spit.
Wanting to punch someone so  badly that I thought my heart would seize if I didn’t, I got right into Troy’s face. “I think you were there,” I said. “I think you were there and you were too chickenshit to call the paramedics.”
“I think you  feel guilty,” Troy whined. “And  you’re taking it out  on me.”
I don’t  know if I would have hit him or  not, because two things happened at once: a dark  stain grew from Troy’s crotch,and shame spread through his face. The smell of urine filled the garage. As I backed away,  the rage  settled down inside me.  I pushed Wade through the door with a hand that was no longer a fist. Pierced Navel  followed us to the front door, screaming. “I don’t care how many A.A. enemas they stick up your ass, you’re still just a cracker with a badge!” She looked familiar, like I’d seen her  regularly in  some other life. And  by the time Wade closed the front door on her and she didn’t open it back up, she seemed almost as young as my daughter.

. . .


As my truck slammed down Temple Hills, I wanted to puke from the adrenalin. I felt like the first time I beat  up someone in a bar with my nightstick. My training officer had stopped at the door and tipped his  hat, and I got that this was my  little hazing. As the guy  came after  me—a  big  crew  cut  with swollen eyes— I would have sworn that I didn’t need the nightstick, but  appar- ently, the nightstick needed him. It wanted his knees and then his kidney.
My cell phone startled me.  The  world of wanting to smack some guy  from New  Jersey  shouldn’t have cell  phones. It was Jeep Mooney, my business partner.
“Wade and I are on our way to your place,” I said. “You’ve been avoiding me for weeks,” she said. “Two minutes.” I flipped the phone closed.
Although she now lived with my sister, Betsy—in the biblical sense—I’d met Jeep in A.A. She’d been agitating for my return to work since  the day after the funeral.
When we showed up, she was standing on her driveway. “It’s Punch and Judy.”
 

Wade looked at me. “You’re Punch,” I said. “I’m Judy.” Some- one  from the seven A.M. meeting must have called Jeep about Wade’s  earlier encounter, but  there was no way she could know about Troy Padilla and me. Yet.
Jeep was wearing a slate-blue suit over a white blouse. About an inch taller than me,  she was stick-thin and regal as a queen. A once-upon-a-time debutante, she’d  been spared the upper reaches of Orange County society by her  Roman nose and car- toonishly bulging eyes,  which weren’t  most people’s idea  of beautiful. She wouldn’t say exactly how she got the name Jeep, but I bet it was a taunt she transcended.
As Wade headed for Betsy’s office—lots of new  toys there— I walked with Jeep through the backyard.
“Have you darkened the door of an A.A. meeting since Terry’s funeral?” Jeep said.
“Did that guy drop off those pavers?” I squinted as though I were calculating material costs.
Jeep stopped walking. “Have  you punched anyone yet?”
I told myself again there was no  way she  could know about
Troy Padilla. “Who told you about Wade?” I asked.
“I’m everyone’s den mother this week,” she said. “Yours, too. You look like shit.”
“The thing is,” I said, “I feel worse.”
We  stood near the edge  of my  sister’s  carp  pond. We  had both argued strenuously against it.  But  without Betsy’s  carp pond, we  wouldn’t  have bisected the yard  with a tight little man-made stream, exactly four  inches across, which fed  the carp pond. That got us into Dwell magazine.
“Am I here to look  at something? Or is this where you  take people when you want to ram  some recovery up their ass?”
 

“The answer to both questions is yes,” Jeep said. “You should get back  to work.  You’re going to need money for this custody thing.”
“Betsy said that Jean has to give me what I want.”
“She also said that any time you walk into a courtroom—” “Besides”—I held up my hand—“I’ve got fifty thousand out
there somewhere.”
About six months before, Terry had asked  me for fifty thou- sand dollars, to be paid back within a year. I had it, so I gave it to him. Still, it was a lot. Terry was sometimes reckless with money, but he would have gotten it back to me eventually.
“Oh, Christ,” Jeep  said.  “The  money you  loaned Terry  is gone. Come back  to work,  and we could make that on  just one job.”
“Maybe I want to fly solo  and I don’t have the balls  to tell you.”
“Balls aren’t your problem,” Jeep said.  “Your  brain’s too big for the inside of your skull.  That’s your problem. You need to build something, relieve the pressure.”
I laughed. “When did you start quoting Terry?”
“He had your number,” Jeep said. “I’ll give him that.” “But?”
“No but.”
I looked at the back  of the house. The balustrade was thick with jasmine. In  another  lifetime, Betsy’s  home was  a  faux Tudor–ranch style, as ugly as pink concrete. Now it had a second floor and a fucking carp pond.
“Okay, then,” I said. “What does she want now?” “An extended balcony.”
“An extended balcony?”
 

“You want me  to define the term for you?  Yes, an extended balcony.”
“Tell  me  what comes after  the ‘but’ that you  claim wasn’t there. Then I’ll dish  about the extended balcony.”
Jeep set her  hands on  her  hips. “You know he wasn’t always such a good role model. He cut corners.”
“He  cheated on  his  taxes. The  IRS slapped him around,” I said.  “Big  deal.   You  know many  lawyers who aren’t  a  little crooked? For that matter, you  know anyone in A.A. who’s not a criminal at heart?”
“Me,” Jeep said. “I’m not a criminal at heart.”
“Which costs  us money every  time we do  a deal.  Listen— why  does  Betsy’s brain always  reach for  the first cliché it can find?  A patio would work.  A lap pool that goes all the way into the trees would work. But an extended balcony? I’m still not sure we did  the right thing adding a second floor.  Let’s not push it. This  won’t be a balcony; this will  be an  invitation to musical theater.”
“Oh   .  .  .” Jeep shook her  head fiercely. “You can  be such a
schmuck.”
She stomped across our high-tech stream toward the house. I followed her  into the kitchen where Betsy and Wade were  sip- ping from bright ceramic mugs. They  stopped talking when I came in.  Jeep pulled a pack  of cigarettes out  of the freezer. “He thinks it’s a stupid idea,” she said.
Wade  lifted  his   mug.  “Jamaican Blue  Mountain  coffee, dude.”
“For him”—Betsy pointed at me—“we’ve got Folgers.”
My sister  is the most beautiful lesbian in the history of La- guna Beach. Ask anyone. Long brown hair, olive skin, green eyes that make you  forget you’ve  seen   green eyes  before. As she pushed back  her  reading glasses,  her  contempt for me  seemed sharper than usual. I poured myself a  cup  of  Jamaican  Blue Mountain just to spite her.
She didn’t meet my eyes, which was a bad  sign.  Then again, it didn’t take much to piss off Betsy lately. I noticed her  iPhone was out  on the table. News of my behavior was often where the journey to being pissed off began.
Betsy  used  to prosecute hate crimes for  the U.S. attorney. Somewhere along her trajectory, she took the advice of her Stan- ford  pals  and invested in social  networking sites.  She was soon able  to quit her  “codependent relationship with the govern- ment” to become a woman of passionate interests: like improv- ing  her  already much improved house, like  the huge model railroad in her  attic that only Jeep and Wade had seen, like her folksinging. Her new Shawn Colvin Signature Martin guitar was sitting in the chair that no one  had offered to me.
Jeep  turned toward us as she  lit  her  cigarette. “Guess who hasn’t been to a meeting since  the beginning of fucking time.”
“Didn’t I tell you that in confidence?” I asked  Jeep.
“You didn’t tell me shit.” She blew smoke past me. “I knew it before you opened your mouth.”
Wade lifted his nose from the coffee.  “We can  go right now, dude. There’s  a meeting at  the club  in,  what, forty-five min- utes?”
“Or don’t go,” Betsy said. “And we can take bets on how long he stays out  of jail.”
Apparently, Betsy  knew about me  and Troy  Padilla. Once again I found myself giving Wade a look  that would have killed a more thoughtful man.
 

“She  got a call,”  Wade said,  “while you  were  outside. This place  is like the A.A. nerve center.”
“Doesn’t anyone in A.A. have a job?”  I said.  “Who the hell called her?”
“I’m  disappointed in  both of you.” Betsy  got up  from the table. “You preyed on this kid. How’s that different from a drunk working over his wife? Or a guard beating a prisoner?”
Wade pointed to the scrape above his eye.
“Don’t give me that crap.” Betsy poured more coffee. “I heard you  were running around making him into the guy who killed Saint  Terry. He had to hit you.”
Wade dove  again into his  bright mug. Betsy  wasn’t  really talking to him anyway.
“I’ve spent half  my life on  the list of people who are denied basic  human rights,” Betsy continued. “When we got married, they held up signs saying we were animals. I can’t be around this shit  anymore.”
The freezer  chugged from coughing up the cigarettes. Wade and Jeep both looked down. Then I got it.
“You  think I jacked him up  because he’s  Mexican?” I said. “I’m not even sure he is Mexican.”
Betsy stared. Jeep stared. Wade kept his eyes on the floor.  By asking the question, I had somehow proved her point.
“Okay,” I said.  “We’ll  kick  that pigeon another time. But please, don’t tell me again how Terry’s death makes sense. That he  was a junkie and that’s how junkies die.  One  day  he  was a poster boy for Southern California A.A., and the next day he was dead from a heroin overdose in a Santa Ana motel? I know some- thing happened, and I’m going to find out  what.”
Betsy shrugged, not unkindly.
 

“Christ,  Betsy,”  I said.  “Who goes out  for one  night and hits the jackpot? After fifteen years?  Hell,  before he  got sober, he’d survived ten  years of overdoses worse than that one.”
I wasn’t shouting anything that I hadn’t shouted weeks ago, after  the memorial. I wasn’t  shouting anything that I hadn’t shouted at myself every  day  since  then. What was he  doing in Santa Ana? Who was he with? Why did he need to borrow fifty thousand dollars from me six months before he died?
Wade continued to avoid my eyes. Betsy watched her guitar. Jeep was the only one  who would look at me.
“I thought all of us had a solution,” I said to her.  “One day at a time.”
“Maybe he didn’t want it anymore?” Jeep said.
A question people had asked, I was sure,  but  not yet to my face.
“You don’t drive  to Santa Ana to kill yourself. That’s pretty easy to do right here. I’ll never believe that.”
Jeep held my eyes. She thought I should let it go. She thought I wasn’t a cop anymore, that I hadn’t been a good cop even then. But I was dying from the pretense that I was anyone but  my old angry self. Three weeks  was, it turned out, my limit for lying  to myself without a Jack Daniel’s to chase the lie. I had to find out what happened in  that motel room. If only to prove to Betsy that I didn’t assault Mexicans anymore—or whatever the hell Troy Padilla was—for no good reason.
Dan Barden|Author Q&A

About Dan Barden

Dan Barden - The Next Right Thing

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

Dan Barden is also the author of John Wayne: A Novel. A native of Southern California, he teaches at Butler University and lives in Indianapolis with his wife, Elizabeth Houghton Barden, owner of Big Hat Books & Arts.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

Q&A with Jennifer Eagan and Dan Barden
 
Jennifer Eagan is the author of the 2011 Pulitzer-prize winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad.
 
 
The Next Right Thing seems both to honor the conventions of the mystery genre, and to bend them in thrilling and amusing ways. Are you a mystery buff? Talk about your relationship to the genre, and if – and how – it moved you to write this novel. Do you see it as a mystery novel?
 
Yes, I’m mystery buff. Thrillers, noir, hard-boiled crime novels  — the whole bag. Hard-boiled, particularly. It’s the kind of book that always goes to the top of the pile. When I was out in the wilderness between novels, I thought really hard about what I wanted to write, and I kept pushing away the idea of a crime novel. I didn’t feel worthy of the genre — it gave me too much pleasure, it was too important to me. But then I went to school on many crime novels that I loved. I typed up the books that I wanted for models — yes, that’s right, I typed up at least five novels, got them into my blood and bones. I was trying to write the best story possible, and I borrowed as many elements from the genre as I could. I’m wary to claim this as a thriller because I don’t want to show up at the door of that club and have someone like Lee Child or James Ellroy or Laura Lippman kick me out.
 
The central relationship of the novel – one that I've never seen explored in fiction before – is that of a recovering alcoholic to his sponsor; indeed, the mysterious death of that sponsor is what sets the story in motion. Talk about the quality of a recovering addict's relationship to his sponsor, and what made you think of investigating the richness of that relationship here.
 
I have a lot of friends in recovery. I’m sure they might all answer this question differently, but I’ll tell you what I’ve seen: an alcoholic comes into the process of recovery and he is probably at the lowest point of his life. And into this weird, desperate vacuum comes a sponsor who not only introduces him to his new life, but also to a new community. The situations that I’ve seen are just so wildly beautiful. People are accepted into the community just because they’re standing there. Not because they are lovable or kind or smart or any of those things that they thought were important. My protagonist, Randy Chalmers, says it well in the book. He says, “You just have to be a still-breathing alcoholic.” When I was getting sober, I had a guy like that, too. He told me that I was in much worse shape than I thought I was, but that I was also better than I thought I was. I can’t imagine my life without knowing him. 
 
Likewise, your use of West Coast recovery culture is sublime and unexpected. Was there research involved?
 
The research was my life. I’ve had many friends in recovery for many years, and I lived in California until my late twenties. The recovery scene out there is amazing. It’s a big culture. And they really walk to the beat of a different drummer. They have a lot of fun, too. Big wild conventions. A.A. meetings with thousands of people at them.. I’m so glad you think it worked.
 
I was struck repeatedly by the humor in your novel. How did you achieve it? Whom do you look to for funny writing you can learn from?
In writing this book, one of my great discoveries was that I could write in the voice of someone funnier than I am. I’m not as funny as my friends, for example. I have one friend in mind. I call him once a week just hoping he’ll have time to tell me stories about his life. He’s been sober a long time, too. So, at one point, I just decided to write in his voice. And that worked really well. As far as other models go, Steve Hely’s How I Became A Famous Novelist was a book that totally cracked me up. That was another novel I typed up, just a chapter or two. There’s a certain kind of brilliantly self-involved mind that always gets me. What else? Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos. God, that was funny book. Jonathan Tropper is a master of droll narration. I studied him, too.
 
Randy Chalmers, your detective figure, is a sensational mix of incongruous qualities. Talk about his genesis; how did he take shape in your mind? Do you plan to write about him again?
 
First of all, he’s grief-stricken. He’s lost his best friend, the man who made his life possible. I know about this kind of grief. The man who got my ass sober died of a heroin overdose himself. For me, it was like getting hit in the face with a shovel. I got very angry about my friend’s death, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I wanted someone who could cause trouble in a way that I couldn’t — so I made him an ex-cop with an anger management problem. But Randy also has a big heart. He loves his friends to a fault. He is incredibly loyal. He also has the grace, sometimes, to see what a problem he is to himself and others. He struggles mightily against himself. He is a beast and an angel. He’s also an artist — a home designer, to be precise — and that’s something he discovered in his recovery. He’s a guy who pulled a lot of precious gifts from the wreckage of his life. I am writing about him again for sure. I hope to be finished with a second book very soon.
 
When I read mysteries, I often find that there comes a point when the exigencies of plot crowd out the more literary aspects of the story. That never happened in your book. In writing it, did you experience tension between genre requirements and literary goals?
 
I’m so glad that you feel that way! Yes, that was the big challenge. I’m sure that’s always the challenge in a book like this that gets its energy from both genre and literary impulses. I worked very to make a book that functioned as a mystery/thriller/crime novel. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the literary part of the story. The trick was to deliver the questions — and answers — that would satisfy an audience looking for a more action-packed experience. That was the prize that I've always dreamed of: a compelling story wrapped around characters who seem alive in the real world.
 

Praise

Praise

Advance praise for The Next Right Thing

“Everything you could hope for from a novel: The Next Right Thing is suspenseful, hilarious, angry—above all, wildly original. I only wish I’d written it myself.”—Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
 
“Dan Barden’s The Next Right Thing is The Long Goodbye in rehab. It’s fierce and funny and absolutely worthy of its predecessors—like them, Barden’s hard-boiled tale is really an inquiry into male love and grief, and the state of the American heart.”—Jonathan Lethem
 
The Next Right Thing has humanity, humor, and insight to burn. Dan Barden takes the clay of the California hard-boiled novel and shapes it into something new.”—George Pelecanos

"An extremely engaging novel…Dan Barden shows us how it's always the people who know us best – the ones whose love (and hatred) is therefore the purest – who have the power to save us.” – Scott Smith, author of A Simple Plan and The Ruins
 
“Randy Chalmers is an American literary hero for our time: a recovering drunk with a big, broken heart and an anger problem. I adore him. In The Next Right Thing, Dan Barden captures exactly the pitiless, irreverent love that keeps drunks sober.” - Michelle Huneven, National Book Critics Circle Finalist author of Round Rock and Blame
 
"Dan Barden's one hell of a writer." – Andrew Vachss

“[An] engaging debut…[Contains] a healthy amount of verve and black comedy…succeeds on the emotional and physical muscle of its narrator”—Kirkus

“Barden vividly renders the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous and the flawed souls who depend on it to stay sane and alive.”--Booklist

“[R]ings true…As I put the book down, I wondered whether Barden had a friend whose death inspired those [final] haunting paragraphs. It feels that real.”The Washington Post
 
 “Dan Barden's new novel, The Next Right Thing, is a rare beast: a detective story where the central mystery turns out not to be the most important thing going on. Incidentally, and perhaps even rarer, it's also a detective story that makes you wonder if you ought to take up construction and interior design.”The Atlantic

“[M]ost unexpected… a refreshingly sordid look at sobriety—perhaps because the action is more engaging than the sinless serenity that drives most tales about life after active addiction. As Barden’s damaged characters curse and fight their way through the hills of tony Laguna Beach and the grittier streets of urban Santa Ana, they defy any expectations that sobriety translates into saintliness. … [A] hell of a lot more provocative than the average hardboiled crime novel”TheFix.com

"... reasonably serious study of male companionship, what it takes to fly straight and the ultimate inscrutability of other people." --The New York Times

"Barden uses the conventions of noir perfectly, giving the audience the specific pleasures it was seeking while illuminating truths about recovery." --The Weekly Standard

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